Spiritual Discipline Series
This year, Expository Files will features 12 articles on Spiritual Disciplines For Every Christian. Our writers will convey to us from the Bible, the simple disciplines that need our attention, to please God and be effective, disciplined people.
By “spiritual discipline” we mean those things God has given us to do. When done consistently, we not only glorify God and serve others well, we build discipline and long-term strength into our lives.
Contrary to the popular thought in the religious world, discipleship involves discipline. It is a commitment that demands lifelong training and instruction. Jesus never tried to hide this fact but instead demanded, “If any man wishes to be my disciple, let him deny himself...” (Matt. 16:24). That takes learning. That takes conditioning and gaining control. That takes spiritual discipline.
Discipline is needed in every area of the Christian’s life. We should exercise control over our temper and our tongue. We ought to train our mind to reject thoughts that are not pure or honorable or of good report. We must develop a habit of personal prayer, staying committed when the things of the world compete for our time and attention. These things are part of denying self and following in the steps of our Master.
Spiritual discipline is even needed when we assemble with our fellow saints. Just because we are in the company of brethren does not mean that we will automatically remain in control. Carrying out the acts of worship begins with preparing our minds before we arrive at the church building. Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, especially when they are familiar to us, involves focusing on the words of each verse. Concentration is necessary during the prayers and the Lord’s Supper to keep distracting thoughts from carrying us far away from what we are doing. Unfortunately, some seem to think that the need for discipline ends as soon as the preacher aks the audience to open their Bibles.
It is one thing to hear; it is quite another to listen. Hearing is the recognition of sound. “Did you hear that?” someone might ask after a mighty clap of thunder. But listening is hearing with attention and understanding. “Are you listening to me?” is what the wife wants to know when her husband is reading the paper while she’s telling him what happened during her day. Once again, it is discipline that is required for us to listen well.
When it comes to His word, God wants us to listen. While Jesus was preaching by the Sea of Galilee, “the multitudes were pressing around Him and listening to the word of God” (Luke 5:1). That was what all of Jesus’ miracles and parables pointed to: spiritual truth. God did not send His Son to break the back of poverty or to end world hunger but to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). That involved attention to His words. Above all, He wanted men to “listen to Him” (Luke 9:35)!
In Martha’s house, Jesus announced that Mary had chosen “the good part” while her sister was distracted with preparations for the meal. That doesn’t mean that Martha had chosen “the bad part,” for she was involved in such noble things as hospitality and service. But in comparison, Mary was doing something that Jesus considered to have even greater value. What was this “good part”? “She was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet” (Luke 10:39).
Each time we study the word of God privately or hear it proclaimed publically, we are sitting at the Lord’s feet. Our objective should be to take care how we listen (Luke 8:18). What sort of things are necessary for this kind of listening?
The book of James is about discipline. He wrote about the attitudes necessary to control the tongue, submit to God, and resist the devil. He also cautioned his readers to be “quick to hear” (James 1:19). And in the following verses of chapter one, he identified the characteristics of objective listening.
Listen with Responsibility
When we listen to gospel preaching, we are not just receivers but receivers of “the word” (James 1:21). We are not simply hearers but hearers of “the word” (James 1:23). That puts a serious responsibility on our shoulders. These words are not the thoughts of our favorite author or the opinion of some motivational speaker. They are the mind of God revealed to man. Paul commended the church in Thessalonica for their recognition of this fact; “when you received from us from the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
We have a responsibility to listen with attentiveness. Some give the appearance of little or no interest when the word of God is being read. Others will pull out their phone the instant they hear the alert that they have received a message while going days without hearing a message from heaven. Would we want our Father to hear our prayers with the same attentiveness we give to listening to His word?
We have a responsibility to listen for accuracy. The Christians in the First Century were warned about the dangers of error and following false teachers to their own destruction. How much more ought we to be watchful when we have the word of God so easily accessible to us. We have every right to demand book, chapter, and verse preaching. It is part of fulfilling our obligation to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
“Receive the word implanted.” This word implanted is the same seed that Peter wrote was “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). And how did they receive it? By fulfilling their responsibility as objective listeners. “This is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25).
Listen with Humility
“In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save yours souls” (James 1:21). It takes a humble heart to be a good listener. When a sermon is preached on a sensitive topic, the easy reaction is the refusal to admit that we struggle in that area. “That’s their problem,” we might say about the people across the auditorium. Humility causes us to stop and consider how the passage applies to our own life. It should motivate us to say, like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).
When Paul gave his defense before Agrippa, he used it as an opportunity to preach about the death and resurrection of Christ. Festus, who was also in the audience, replied, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad” (Acts 26:24). His response indicated the attitude of “I’m not the problem, you are!” What he should have done was bow his knee in humble submission.
One of the greatest compliments the preacher can receive after services is for someone to tell him, “I needed that.” That means they weren’t looking for someone to teach things “in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:3). Neither did they focus on his stage presence or admire his suit and tie combination. It means that the word of God found its mark in a receptive heart, a heart that in humility received the word implanted. Such is needed to be an objective listener.
Listen with Honesty
“Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). Those who are hearers only are satisfied only with hearing. There is no effort to put into practice what has been heard. They sit in the pew, follow along in their Bibles, jot down notes in the margin, and even give a hearty “Amen” to the sermon. But that is as far as the message is able to penetrate. It takes humility to receive the word; it takes honesty to make use of it.
The worst kind of deceit is when we deceive ourselves. We might think that we have done our part simply because we have listened well to what God has said. But our responsibility extends to applying that same message where it needs to go. When Jesus identified the four types of soils in the Parable of Sower, He referred to the good soil as the ones “who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). The alternative is the man who thinks himself to be religious “but deceives his own heart” (James 1:26).
King Josiah was one of the few bright spots in the history of the kingdom of Judah. His honest attitude toward the word of God was revealed when Hilkiah the high priest found the book of the law. “And it came about when the king heard the words of the book of the law, that he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11). What caused the king to respond in such a mournful way to what he had heard? “Because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13). May we, like the king, be willing to confess our sins when the word of God convicts us. To do any less is to keep deluding ourselves.
Listen with Accountability
“But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). What will this “blessed” man do with what he has found in the law? He will “bridle his tongue,” “visit orphans and widows in their distress,” and keep himself “unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27). His conduct reflects his understanding that he is accountable to God for following His will. “James does well to remind us that what is heard in the holy place must be lived in the market place – or there is no point in hearing at all” (William Barclay).
After the resurrection, Jesus revealed to Peter that being His disciple would affect not only the way he lived but the way he would die (John 21:18-19). Peter’s initial response was to point to John and ask, “Lord, and what about this man” (John 21:21)? Isn’t that typical of us? If we’re going to sacrifice, we want to know what everyone else is going to have to give up. Jesus would say the same thing to us that He said to Peter. “What is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22)! Be accountable for yourself. You can’t listen for anyone else.
Jesus, who came as the Savior of the world, will one day return as the Judge of the living and the dead. According to Him, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:48). On that day, we will be judged by the standard of God’s word. Not by what was politically correct, not by what a preacher said about the Scriptures, but by every word that proceeded from the mouth of God. The book of our life should reflect not only a love of truth but a living of the wonderful words of life. That fact alone should cause us to take care how we listen.
By being objective listeners of the Scriptures, our lives become a sermon. People in the world can observe our behavior and develop their own hunger and thirst for righteousness. Their first exposure to the word of God might be the conduct of those who faithfully follow the Lord’s commands. Paul told the church at Corinth, “you are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-3). Listening takes us from private study and the public assembly to evangelism in the world. Let us develop the spiritual discipline needed for such a transformation.
By Bubba Garner
From Expository Files 23.6; June 2016